Chris Thile

Posted in MusicWorld on August 26, 2002

Kentucky might be the Bluegrass State, but the state of bluegrass these days has evolved into a musical global village. From the rousing success of the movie soundtrack O Brother, Where Art Thou? to retro-roots recent efforts by Patty Loveless, Dolly Parton and Tom T. Hall, bluegrass is flourishing like Southern kudzu.

And, just as the Beatles twisted, turned and honed rock & roll into new directions, Nickel Creek elevates the bluegrass art form into new ventures and new venues. Hailing from San Diego where grass is more likely to be brown than blue, the trio blends the talents of mandolin master Chris Thile with Sara Watkins on fiddle and her brother Sean on guitar. Their self-titled debut album on independent label Sugar Hill Records struck gold, spawning Grammy and Country Music Association award nominations while sending critics scrambling for definitions such as "youthgrass" and "polystylistic."

"It's just Nickel Creek music," advises producer Alison Krauss. Ranging in age from 21 to 25, the band members have been plying their craft together for almost a dozen years - kid veterans who have worked out the kinks and worked in imaginative forays into multiple genres. The band (originally formed with Chris's father, bassist Scott Thile) embarked on festival touring for a decade, with Chris releasing the solo albums Stealing Second, Leading Off and Not All Who Wander Are Lost. Their bluegrass can sprout into variations on a theme of Bach or Bob Dylan or the Beatles without completely abandoning the commandments brought down from a Kentucky mount by its founder Bill Monroe.

Fans and critics who loved the first album should fasten seatbelts for the take-off of the second CD - This Side. It's an even deeper incursion into Nickel Creek's free-fall form of music, improving on improvisation, and raising the bar on what one act can attain this early in the game. Thile, who was the 2001 IBMA Mandolin Player of the Year, displays solid songwriting skills along with co-writer Sean Watkins, while all three share vocal duties, the male voices sanguinely balanced by the ethereal stylings of Sara, reflective of producer Krauss.

Coming off rave appearances at such clubs as New York's Bottom Line and an overseas tour including London, Paris, and Amsterdam, Nickel Creek, with a zesty traditional yet exploratory sound, is poised to paint the globe with their unique shade of blue.